George Covington — A Brush With Andy

Circa 2009

Lack of artistic talent should not be a burden. I have absolutely no artistic talent, but since I don’t attempt to create art, I feel quite unburdened. However, I do have opinions about those people who claim to be artists and produce their mediocre work for public consumption. I must state my prejudices about what some refer to as modern art. This is one of the most misapplied terms in the English language.

I admire the work of the late nineteenth century Impressionists and a few borderline Expressionists. If possible, I would fill my home with works by Monet, Chagall, and Matisse; but I have not recently been fired from a Wall Street firm and thus left with a few hundred million to spare for art investment. I especially love paintings by Van Gogh. Although he is cited by some as an artist whose insanity and use of booze and drugs excused a lack of talent, that is not true. His talent was extraordinary. Yet among the so-called “Modern Artists” the Impressionist Period was the last one in which intellect is reflected in most examples of the art.

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In the art world of today, the word minimal in the label minimal artist refers to the talent of the individual as well as to the work he or she produces. I was trying to recover from learning that in the 1990s, someone paid $185,000 for three inflated basketballs in an empty fish aquarium, when I soon discovered equally hideous examples of excess and madness attempting to pass for art. Last year Damien Hirst, who calls himself an artist, sold a diamond encrusted skull for $100,000,000. In September of 2008 he sold a dead calf in a tank of formaldehyde for over $18,000,000. He also sold a jar containing a pickled fetal pig with wings attached for $800,000. In addition, sales of his spin art and wings ripped from butterflies garnered $200,000,000. Hirst’s exploitation of potential collectors has passed the bounds of decency.

I understand that he is collaborating with Levi Strauss to create his own line of jeans and t-shirts. He is attacking the very fiber (usually cotton) of the American West. Can we look forward to seeing real cowboys wearing two-hundred dollar jeans adorned with skulls, bright spots of color and butterflies? Will our youth wear his $80 t-shirts with the same motif? Does this American master of gore consider himself on a level with Freddy Kruger from the film Nightmare on Elm Street?

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A successful artist friend of mine summed up the situation: “All are familiar with the idea that mad artists create art, but we must recognize that there are also mad patrons of art.” Another artist friend commented, “I can be cynical about the art industry, but I take art seriously. I realize this is a New York thing, but I do admire Damien Hirst for being able to get away with such a heist! I found it a very neo-Dadaist concept played against speculative investors. Sadly, we need only watch the news to see what fools are out there gambling in such speculative investment. Guess I need to raise the prices on some of my art.”

For those that feel that I, a nearly blind person, should not be judging the visual arts, I’ll have you know that I once had a brush with a famous artist and one of his works in progress. Thirty years ago at the First International Very Special Arts Festival, I was assigned to photograph Andrew Wyeth’s less famous son Jamie. As I was doing my photographer moves with my state-of-the-art 35mm camera blazing away, I backed into a work of art nearing completion. The wet watercolor left an abstract pattern from the shoulder to the elbow of my corduroy jacket. I quickly turned to apologize to the artist and Andy Warhol responded, “No problem,” in his droll Andy Warhol voice. This encounter with a man whose approach to his art I have always admired is a pleasant memory, but my close contact with Andy and his work was brief, and it ended when I took my corduroy coat canvas to my dry cleaners.

by George Covington

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